In the pantheon of backroom record men from the golden age of rock and soul, one would be hard pressed to find a figure at once so respected for his achievements yet universally unknown as my father, Bert Berns. Responsible for writing and producing some of the greatest songs of the era, this musical visionary’s body of work is now made available for the first time in the form of a landmark two-volume collection. This first set, compiled so brilliantly by Rob Hughes, Mick Patrick and Tony Rounce, samples the initial creative output of what they describe as “one of the most gifted, charismatic and successful record producers of the 1960s – on a par with Phil Spector or the Holland/Dozier/Holland and Leiber/Stoller teams.”
Born in the Bronx, New York during the Great Depression to poor European immigrants, Bert Russell Berns lived a life as dramatic as a work of fiction. Contracting rheumatic fever as a child, he then immersed himself in the sounds of the city, took up the piano and guitar, and began a long musical journey which saw him spend much of his twenties knocking around with the Beat generation in Greenwich Village and dancing the Mambo in Harlem nightclubs. Infatuated with the music emanating from Cuba, he made his way to pre-revolutionary Havana, where he converted a whorehouse into a nightclub while running guns for Castro’s rebels.
He returned from Cuba when he was 30 and got his first break working for a publisher at 1650 Broadway. It was from here that the entirety of his epic seven-year run took place, which saw him rise from a $50-per-week song plugger to one of the only men of his time to pull off the triple of songwriter, producer and owner of his own record labels.
Chronicling the first half of this incredible run, this CD opens with two of his very first recordings from 1960 – Austin Taylor’s Push Push and Hoagy Lands’ Lighted Windows. Capturing both the innocence of the times and the relative innocence of his creative development, these tracks give an insight into the songwriter and producer that would soon streak like a comet across the sky. A Little Bit Of Soap, recorded the following year by the Jarmels, was his first hit record and established him as one of the hottest new writers. But, before dedicating himself exclusively to the backroom, he took a last shot at becoming a performing artist, recording You’d Better Come Home under the pseudonym Russell Byrd.
Berns’ destiny, however, would be determined by his next two major successes – the Isley Brothers’ Twist And Shout, which the Beatles covered, and Solomon Burke’s Cry To Me, which came to the attention of Atlantic Records. A year after these releases, Twist And Shout was an anthem, and Bert Berns had become the staff producer at Atlantic, where he worked with a range of artists that we feature, including the Drifters, Ben E King, Mel Torme, Little Esther Phillips and the Vibrations. His stint at Atlantic, however, was not exclusive, as he worked tirelessly producing acts for the spectrum of New York labels. In fact, some of my father’s best but most obscure work was released on these labels, as evidenced by the tracks by the Wanderers’ (United Artists), Betty Harris (Jubilee), and the Hockadays’ (Symbol) showcased here. And he was in such demand that he became one of the only American producers of his day to journey to the source of the British Invasion, where he recorded songs such as Here Comes The Night with Lulu and some of Them’s greatest hits.
The second volume of THE BERT BERNS STORY will focus primarily on the music he produced for his own record labels, Bang and Shout, where Van Morrison and Neil Diamond made some of their best work. The triumphs associated with running his own outfit, however, would come at a heavy price, as the stress associated with this success began to weigh on his already fragile health. But before my father died from heart failure on the penultimate night of 1967 at the young age of 38, he would often tell my mother that after he was gone, his three children would one day know him through his music. As I grew to a man I witnessed this prophesy come to fruition. Now with Ace Records’ spectacular two-volume anthology, everyone has an opportunity to discover the depth and range of Bert Russell Berns’ legacy.
By Brett Berns